In East African business circles, few entrepreneurs shine brighter than Njeri Rionge. One of Kenya’s most successful and revered serial entrepreneurs, Rionge has co-founded multi-million dollar companies in quick succession. She co-founded Wananchi Online, a leading Internet service provider which has gone on to become East Africa’s leading cable, broadband and IP (Internet-based) phone company. Wananchi has become immensely successful, so much that it has raised close to $60 million in growth capital from a consortium private equity firms. She also founded Ignite Consulting, a thriving business consultancy; Business Lounge, Kenya’s leading startup incubator; Ignite Lifestyle, a health care consultancy; and Insite, one of Kenya’s most successful digital marketing outfits. She now divides her time between homes in Nairobi and Toronto where she runs her diverse business concerns. She recently recounted to her earliest days in business and reiterated her relentless pursuit of the African dream in an interview by FORBES.
Let’s take a little trip down memory lane. When did you start your first business venture, and what was it?
As a twenty year old, my first business involved selling yogurt to the International School Of Kenya and Loretto Convent Musongari High School over their 10am and 4pm school breaks. I sold the yogurt from the car trunk which belonged to a friend of mine with whom I had partnered. We picked up the yogurt from a farm in Limuru (a town in Kenya) at 6 am and returned back every second day for more stock. Throughout this period I was employed as a hairdresser with a clientele consisting largely of high net worth individuals. Recognizing yet another opportunity, I traveled to London on a regular basis using discounted courier tickets to purchase re-sale luxury merchandise which were not available in Kenya at the time. I sold this merchandise to my clients.
You seem restless. Why do you keep creating companies serially rather than just sticking to one, and milking it for all it’s worth?
I create companies serially because I believe that Africa is the next economic frontier and we must build indigenous organizations that will support this growth.
Of all the companies you’ve built, which was the most challenging and the most fun?
Wananchi was a roller coaster ride in which we sought to challenge the assumption of regulators, the government officials and competitors that the Internet was not only relevant for the elite. Ignite has been the most challenging but Wananchi Online was the most fun of them all. I am now focused on my Nairobi and Toronto business locations for the wholly owned companies. Ignite Consulting has had a long development process which has taught me the true benefits of project management, performance management and time management without which a consultant can easily go-out of business. On the other hand, it is important to manage timely exits and succession. I intend to hand over the businesses to business drivers to take them to the next level through a management sale or recruitment of a CEO.
What have been the biggest impediments you’ve encountered in all your years of doing business?
The greatest impediments I have encountered personally are managing the brand value and promise of each brand while building a business. The Internet and social media present great opportunities to quickly communicate developments, changes in activities and interests. If these communication pieces are ignored or not managed they tend to bring about confusion within organizations and with their customers. The rules of engagement have shifted and yet much of our organizational cultures remain rooted in outmoded styles of operation that have little relevance in a globalised market place.
What was the biggest lesson you’ve learned in business?
When you’re in business you are responsible for the good, the bad and the ugly, pay attention at all times and take responsibility for all that you and your organization does throughout its tenure.
What is your philosophy in business and in life?
I judge myself based on my performance vis-à-vis today’s challenges and opportunities. I am passionate about growth in others and myself. I am humbled and gain enormous strength from the many young dynamic people I have had the privilege of working with over the years. Success for me is defined by increased value – not simply financial rewards. This is still to be tested in this phase one and the follow up phases.
In a nutshell, what is the most important piece of advice you’ll give to young, entrepreneurial inclined individuals out there- particularly the ladies?
Ladies, it’s like learning to ride a bike or driving a car. You need only to believe in yourself, trust your gut feeling and develop a clear plan or strategy, keep it simple and implement that plan step by step with courage, conviction and love above all. Ultimately be open minded and flexible to change course when needed and listen to your customers.